The Harvard Bar

With graduation coming up this weekend, students in our department are flipping back and forth between sheer panic of trying to complete projects and wandering around, waiting for things to happen to them. It’s that typical “hurry up and wait” approach where you go through three finals in one day and then have to hang out for that last final, three days later, which probably won’t impact your grade unless you skip it.

In that time period, a lot of kids have been hanging out in the doorways of the offices around here, saying goodbye to professors and just killing time. One of my favorite kids wedged himself into the doorframe of my next-door neighbor’s office and was grousing about a gen ed course he was finishing.

The professor teaching the course was a recent add to the U’s faculty, having come from working at Harvard. It is unclear to me what she did there, but it was either research or education or both. It’s also unclear to me how or why she landed here, but we all have our reasons. (The guy who ended up hiring me here said that when I applied and they looked through my vita, they wondered what was wrong with me. The old “you’re overqualified, so you must be a broken toy” issue…)

The kid noted that he didn’t want to turn in his final paper because the professor told the class that any errors would result in a zero. Thus, the kid felt like he should go back in and try yet again to clean it up, for fear of the zero. However, he also felt that any time he put into this thing would be wasted time, because he was unlikely to find all the errors, and thus was still likely to get a zero. So, he just hung on to the damned thing until he was forced to finally hand it in.

The kid said the class was confused, only to be told by the professor that they should “look at the assignment sheet.” He also noted that on more than one occasion, the professor screamed at them that “This kind of work would never fly at Harvard.”

Usually, I let these stories go, as it’s always a two-sided, he-said/she-said thing. As my kindergarten teacher told the parents in my class once, “If you don’t believe everything your child tells you happened at school, I promise I won’t believe everything the kid says happened at home.”

Still, this wasn’t a kid prone to exaggeration. He was a newsroom kid, a professional photographer and he had a thick skin. I’d kicked the crap out of him in a few classes when he was being a dink and he more than readily admitted I was right or that he wasn’t trying. He’d then redirect and get better.

Even more, I’ve heard more than a few stories of people getting culture shock when they make a lateral or downward move in academia. The types of kids change, the demands change, the environment changes and then BAM, they’re freaking out. It’s not hard to figure that a professor who went from the Yankees of college to the Lansing Lugnuts of A-ball would see a few changes.

My problem is this: It’s not the kids’ fault you’re here. It’s your own.

I learned at and taught at two schools that often battle for the title of the Jesus H. Christ Original School of Journalism. I had kids at both of these institutions who were great and worked hard and went on to do great things. I also had kids at both places who couldn’t find an original thought with a searchlight and a posse. Calling them dumb as a sack of hammers would demean hammers everywhere.

When I moved to a non-flagship university and taught there, a lot of students asked me if they were as good as “Mizzou kids.” In other words, “These mystical children are the standard and benchmark upon which the rest of us should be measured. Have we measured up?”

The answer was simple: Yes and no and sometimes better. The schools give you an opportunity to learn. Not everyone avails themselves of these opportunities. Students who attend these schools might get a few additional advantages or a few extra shots at internships or jobs, but it doesn’t inherently make them better. It’s not like when you graduate, they hand you a sheepskin and a new brain, both of which contain all the answers.

I know I’ve brought up my previous stops along the academic trail about a million times since I’ve left those other institutions, but not once did I (or would I) create a negative comparison between the students where I am and the students where I was.

In a lot of ways, I would rather work with the branch-school kids than the kids at Big Swinging Dick University. They value education because they have to work three jobs to pay for it. They have to convince parents who might never have attended college to see the value in doing it instead of just running the family farm or family business. In fact, I’ve never had a kid’s parents call me up here and demand a grade be changed. (I have had this happen elsewhere and colleagues who are at the top-notch places say it happens to them all the time.) They don’t give professors a pass because they are esteemed bullshit artists. They challenge us to tell them why they should care about X, Y or Z and we better have a good answer.

Even if none of these things were true, it’s your job to educate the people you have in front of you. It’s like playing poker: you play the hand you’re dealt and the best players can usually find a way to win, regardless of that hand. You can’t keep folding hand after hand, with a dismissive sigh because you didn’t catch pocket aces.

These people paid to get your best. You owe it to them to give it to them.

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